If only the landscape weren’t so familiar–a clear-cut mountain side, a battlefield strewn with bodies and smoldering equipment, whole neighborhoods left in nothing but rubble. Or that all too familiar political landscape–never-ending bickering and name-calling, deadlocked legislative bodies, deals and lining pockets leaving the real issues of communities untouched. Or the devastation of interior landscapes–the house after she’s left, the silence after he died, the ominous dark and density of depression, the relentlessness of pain.
2700 years ago Isaiah looked upon the landscape of his country with utter frustration and disgust, his fellow “prophets,” if you could call them that, spouting lies and silliness, the kings of Judah worthless, and the Empire of Assyria looming at the border. Surely God was dismayed at the faithlessness of those who were supposed to be “God’s people.” Surely this was not what God intended, this was not God’s dream for the people of Judah or the earth.
So, as he did in times of distress and despair, Isaiah went deep. Got still. Listened. Searched his heart and the landscape of his mind. And at last, he heard the melody.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear. But with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hold of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
It’s a rather strange image of hope to offer to a people in utter discouragement and devastation.
It had been 200 years since the death of King David, that ruler that Judah seemed to refer to as the model, the beloved king, yet Isaiah remembers the mixed record of King David, with his seductions, his betrayals, his wars, his infidelities. There was no “golden time” before. Judah doesn’t need another king like that. Maybe, Isaiah dreams, God will bring another shoot from Jesse–a new and better ruler, one with qualities that God longs for in a ruler–”a fearsome knowledge of Yahweh, extraordinarily discerning wisdom, unbending counsel, this one’s strength in words of truth and power.” [John Holbert, patheos, 12/8/13] I found myself won-dering if there might have been a daughter of Jesse, not just all the sons who were paraded in front of the prophet Samuel to be anointed king. After all, it is through the mother that Jewish lineage is traced, though you’d never know it from the Bible. I couldn’t even find the name of David’s mother in the Bible, and as it turns out, it isn’t in there. It’s in the Talmud, though, the accumulated commentary by the rabbis of Torah, and there it says that David’s mother was Nitzeyet, daughter of Adael. You learn something new every day. Anyway, it’s a little diversion –a daughter from the stump of Jesse– but then, who knows where Hope will come from?
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” A strange image. So often we think of shoots sticking out of stumps as “suckers” and do our best to seal them off. It’s hard to feel confident in a future that comes from a sucker. It sounds like a loser. We prefer winners.
A shoot is a fragile thing, vulnerable to cold snaps, or being hit too hard, or not enough moisture. Vulnerable to death, in other words. We know that branches grow at their edges, at their ends, and a stump–without leaves to process their chlorophyll–seems like a dead end, literally. But it’s been discovered that the roots of trees that grow near each other are so intertwined that any who do have leaves, produce the chlorophyll and energy that is shared through the roots. The community of trees literally keeps its members alive.
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord–the breath or wind of God–shall blow over and rest on this one, the spirit/breath/wind of wisdom and understanding, the spirit/breath/wind of counsel and might, the spirit/breath/wind of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”
Back in the 1990’s, there was an experiment called the Biodome, which attempted to make a totally self-contained biological environment. One of the baffling disappointments was the trees. They had sunlight, water, nutrients, but they didn’t stand tall. They flopped over. As it turns out, the missing element was wind. Trees actually need wind occasionally to blow and create microcracks in their trunks and branches. Just like bones, that are stronger where they’ve been stressed or broken, so trees need the stress of wind. “We actually need storms in life,” as one preacher put it. [Rev. Whitney Rice, sermonsthatwork, 2 Advent 2013] “The spirit/breath/wind of the Lord shall blow over and rest on this one,” Isaiah wrote, this branch from Jesse’s tree.
And it won’t be just the human population who will be transformed, led in a new way by this little one, this leader of wisdom and understanding, compassion and counsel. The whole of creation will be transformed. The rule and order of nature will be changed and overturned .
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
This is indeed a new kind of peace. When the leopard lies down with the kid, that baby goat’s not going to get much sleep, we think. What happens when the more powerful of these pairs gets hungry? Will the lion really be satisfied eating straw? This time of peace or shalom “is creation time,” writes Walter Brueggemann, “when all God’s creation eases up on hostility and destruction and finds another way of relating.” [cited by Kate Huey in sermonseeds, 12/7/13]
Can we imagine a new kind of peace, along with a new kind of ruler?
It’s a dream of an impossible possibility, as Bruce Epperly puts is, of enemies becoming companions, children safe from harm, wise national leadership, a world without war. It has never happened, but it still judges the world, it is still the ideal, the goal toward which any and all of our endeavors must reach. [Bruce Epperly, Adventurous Lectionary, 12/4/16] Indeed, we still long for it, still sing Isaiah’s song every Advent –”When God is a child there’s joy in our song, the last shall be first, and the weak shall be strong, and none shall be afraid….”
A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse… It will not happen overnight. It is a fragile beginning, but each of us has a stake in tending to it, we each have a role in bringing this shoot to branch to bud to blossom, so that we may eat of its fruit. Every child is potentially that leader. What was said to John the Baptist as an infant by his dead stump of a father Zechariah might be said to every new-born–”And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go to prepare God’s ways…” Align with those ways, that child-become-man cried out in the wilderness. Live into the dream God has for us. Repent. Prepare ye the way!
You know the dream. Sing it with me. “When God is a child, there’s joy in our song. The last shall be first, and the weak shall be strong. And none shall be afraid.” (Brian Wren)
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark